“Look at this bug!” exclaimed my friend Jenn, her voice awed. I did. Its thorax and abdomen stretched a full two and a half inches long, with six spidery legs and two thin, waxy wings shaped like the seeds of a maple tree (and nearly as big). Two knobs full of tiny black eyes sat on its snout like a menacing pair of sunglasses. What its name was I don't know, but I imagined a mosquito like that could easily sip enough blood for a good-sized donation to the Red Cross.
The insect perched on the lower pane of glass in my door, fortunately on the outside—it wasn't something I wanted in the house. Sunlight glinted off its angular green hide. I stared into its belly, hesitating. Was this worth unpacking my camera?
"Get a picture," ordered my friend.
“Yes, ma'am." I reached for the tripod. Since the glass door was only a foot away from my desk, I could easily swivel the lamp for perfect lighting. "Step into my studio," said the photographer to the fly.
This photo of a hiker register on the summit of Mount Washington NH once earned the author $1000 and appears in the 2010 Outdoor Photography wall calendar (it’s the image for the month of January). Also available as a refrigerator magnet and t-shirt.
My pictures, frankly, were usually o.k., typical, sometimes even bland. They earned me a little—very little—money on the side. As a freelance writer and amateur photographer, I learned that magazines often buy adequate to good pictures so long as they come with good to great articles. But this huge insect, a twisted network of green joints and limbs aglow in the sunshine, was far beyond adequate. It was a spectacular opportunity, if I could just get it right.
Sure enough, I successfully bungled the job.
With the aperture set at f/11, I peered through the lens and saw...nothing. A green blur. Slowly I tried to focus on the grass and trees in my lawn—much too far away. I swiveled the focus back, waiting for an insect to materialize in the haze. Still nothing.
When I glanced up, the bug was calmly perched on the window, tolerating the camera I had so rudely stuck under its nose. But if I looked through the camera—no bug.
Either the insect turned invisible each time I bent down to shoot, or else a green bug was simply too hard to see against a backdrop of sunny green grass.
A quick solution sprang to mind. I removed the camera from the tripod and aimed it at a calendar about six inches away. In the midst of a foggy blur, the word "Wednesday" appeared, perfectly focused. Satisfied, I put the camera back on the tripod exactly six inches from the window. Once again, I saw blurry green grass and no bug. So much for that technique.
If I moved back a foot, the bug shrank to a thin, dark rod on the window—visible but featureless. Not worth shooting. This had to be close work, since I had only a 28-70mm zoom lens (with macro) at hand. But as soon as I stepped near again, the bug vanished. Why?
At last the real solution dawned on me. My friend was dressed in white, so I could send her outside to stand directly behind the killer insect, thus providing a differently colored background. She hadn't given blood for a while, anyway.
By now the bug (technically a fly, since the true bugs have squat, flat backs and folded wings) had grown tired of posing. It gave up at just that instant and lit off, perhaps in search of some stray hikers for dinner. So much for the perfect photograph.
That left me with my camera set on the tripod, a variety of filters strewn across my desk, and a fresh roll of film ready for use. Outside, the shadows were deepening. Robins twittered in the woods behind my house. Three miles distant, a fat cloud scraped its belly on a tall hill, tinted red by the sunset. There were still pictures to discover.
The slanted, prismatic light of sunrise and sunset always provides the best opportunities of photographs. Everyone knows this; the real trick is to capture a vermillion sky on film that is somehow different from millions of other pictures taken over the years. I think of the colored sky as a mere backdrop on concentrate on what's in front: pebbles or stones in a pond, grasses and trees, the silhouette of a human being. That is where the true picture lies.
As I walked toward the tree-topped hills, swarms of insects followed me. Some of my giant mosquito's smaller cousins started nibbling on my arms and neck.
Flawed pictures are inevitable; there are always a few in every roll. In the pre-digital era, I couldn't always afford to shoot two or three or more exposures on one animal—like the giant bug—only to use just one (or none) of them. Bracketing does not always deliver a perfect picture, but it absolutely guarantees one or two worthless ones.
When my friends see a brilliant composition in which birch trees are blue, they shudder. They see a beautiful scene lost forever, all because I was too frugal to try a variety of exposures. With good slide film selling for $8-$12 per roll, that's the price I pay to save money.
If one shot fails, however, another may succeed on only one try. This method—one frame, one scene—is like hunting. When we are stalking the invisible bug, we have time for just one shot, maybe two. If both miss, our prey escapes and suddenly we're out of film. To paraphrase the Revolutionary War hero, Col. William Prescott, "Don't shoot 'til you see the whites of their eyes—and don't shoot at all if a bad photograph is the likeliest result."
Deep in the forest of Maine, wildlife photographers can find plenty of giant mosquitos, and bigger game as well. I've learned to wait for moose and deer at ponds, where they go to escape stinging insects and the heat of July. In early morning and late afternoon, the animals swim, eat aquatic vegetation, and sometimes stand still long enough to present leisurely targets.
That doesn't mean I always succumb to the temptation of bracketing. One scene, one frame is still the basic rule. All too often, there is little time for a second shot.
Once I hiked for four hours in search of moose, meeting only blackflies and pine trees. But minutes after I had given up, mooseless and weary, a moose finally appeared; she stepped out of the woods in front of my car. Frantic, I prodded the breaks, groped blindly for my camera, aimed through the windshield, and clicked the shutter. The moose jogged into the trees and was gone.
Without autofocus, I could not have even attempted to take that shot quickly enough. Likewise, if my camera had been stowed away in a pack or a bag, the moose would have easily escaped. By pure luck, the aperture and shutter speed were set correctly for a fast, hand-held exposure—there was no time to adjust them, or even see what they were. Sometimes luck is all it takes. For example, how often is a photographer's windshield as clean as a camera lens?
Unfortunately, mine wasn't; a splatter of Maine mud on my windshield became a fatal black smudge the slide. The moose, however, was in focus. And a day or so later, I discovered two more moose—painted on a granite boulder. Unlike their flesh-and-bone cousin, these moose patient stood still. Better composition was the result.
In Maine, flying sea gulls are equally hostile to bracketing—they won't fly back to give us a second chance. In such a situation, it helps to imagine the composition in advance, then wait for the birds to fly into it.
Nature photographers unwilling or unable to "waste" film by bracketing have one recourse...practice. Practice and hope to get each frame right. But we never will. All we can do is try, and gradually hope to improve.
With limited budgets and equipment, great pictures don't come easily—but they do come, with a little effort and patience. Since the big green bug on my window was a risky shot, I tipped my cap to Col. Prescott and held my fire, waiting for better opportunities elsewhere. Sure enough, I found them.
In a marshy grove, a white sun blasted through the black silhouettes of trees. For an instant, the daystar crawled over a forked, leafless branch. Once again, I was faced with the perfect composition—if only the exposure turned out right. With my camera pointed straight at the sun, I quickly picked f/22 and a shutter speed of 1/2000. "This will never work," I told myself, hoping I was wrong.
My meter, meanwhile, blinked out of control. For proper exposure, it practically begged me to put the lens cap back on. I ignored it.
To my eyes, out there in the woods, the sun had swelled to a giant white orb, a blur of light. But on film, it shrunk into a brilliant, pointed star, perfectly wedged in a fork in the tree. My picture didn't look anything like the real scene—it looked better.
Raindrops on ferns and leaves at my feet captured the sun’s rays and deepened the color in the woods. I paused and kneeled for some close-up shots.
The pine sap and spider came later. By now, the sun had settled on the hills, casting streams of horizontal rays through the woods. I found a tall tree near the edge of a cornfield, still basking in the light. Hard strips of pine resin glistened on the dark bark. And there sat the spider, brown on brown.
I set up my wobbly tripod and zoomed in on the spider, barely visible against the bark. Around it, rows of pine sap gleamed like fragments of the sun. A tricky shot, but worth the risk. For the exposure, I guessed. Click. End of roll.
All in all, I was glad to have missed my chance at the bug. The nature scenes I had stumbled across instead were certainly worth the walk—and also the film. Perhaps that invisible bug had landed on my window just to draw me outside. For that, above all, I was grateful.